Among the many themes in the book “The Mill on the Floss”, the one that seems to be more prominent is the one about gender roles of the 19th century. One might even consider this book to be a social critique about how these imposed gender roles affect both boys and girls. The author tells us through Maggie and Tom’s example how gender roles go against people’s nature, that they are extremely exaggerated and narrow, that they are unreasonable and, how they have the capability to enhance negative traits and to change people for the worse.
In the novel one can see many examples on how the gender norms and expectations seem to go against both Maggie and Tom’s desires and personality. We have many instances where Maggie is forced to quiet down her opinions even though they are morally correct, like when the family decided to curse Mr. Wakem in their Bible and when she pleaded for them to stop she was reproofed with a “Quiet down Maggie.” From Tom(P.291). Tom on the other hand is often described in the novel as being awkward and he often has difficulty expressing himself like Maggie. When he grows up, the pressure of the house is set on his shoulders upon the sickness of his father, and he is expected to behave and act accordingly like the man of the house. However, his lack of confidence and the pressure of this duty only made him miserable because he had to force himself into that role: “One day was like another, and Tom’s interest in life, driven back and crushed on every side, was concentrating itself into the one channel of ambitious resistance to misfortune.”(p.297)
The author also makes these gender notions seem exaggerated with phrases like “she’s twice as ‘cute as Tom. Too cute for a woman I’m afraid”(p. 56) perhaps to make the readers of those times realize how silly the gender role expectations truly were. Likewise she makes these norm seem unreasonable like in the case of Mr. Tulliver who chose his wife “ ‘cause she was a bit weak, like; for I wasn’t agoin’ to be told the right o’ things by my own fireside”(p. 64) and in a way back fires. If Mrs. Tulliver would have been more stronger and clever she would had stopped Mr. Tulliver into “going to law” and they would have not ended in poverty. Furthermore, when their situation does come to that, Mrs. Tulliver is not much moral support and ends up wallowing in her own self-pity.
Additionally, one of the most important examples on how said gender roles were illogical is the education of Tom and Maggie. According to the novel, rather than being at school, Tom wanted to be “a substantial man like his father” he wanted to ride, to hunt, and to follow his father’s line of business (p.169), but because Mr. Tulliver wanted him to be a lawyer and to have a more prosperous life as himself Tom was forced into an education which in the end did not help him at all. Maggie, who wanted desperately for an education of her own and to help her family with money was denied such privilege because of her sex. Hence, when poverty came about them they were both miserable in their forced situation; Maggie feeling helpless and Tom having “to carry a ton weight on his back.”(p.287).
Finally, there is a moment in which Maggie reflects on her situation and how easy it would be for her to fall into a state of bitterness and resentment if it were not for her strong emotions and moral convictions (p.308) which are characteristics that were not deemed favorable or feminine. So one can say that these gender roles almost made her into her aunt Glegg in a way. In Tom’s case the expectations placed upon him because of these gender roles basically heighten his most negative characteristics and made him into someone with “no pity: you have no sense of your own imperfections and your own sins. It is a sin to be hard; it is not fitting for a mortal –for a Christian. You are nothing but a Pharisee. You thank God for nothing but your own virtues—you they are great enough to win everything else. You have not even a vision of feelings by the side of which your shining virtue are mere darkness!” (p.361) as Maggie says.
In conclusion, the author critiques various aspects of her society, but her clear and varied examples of the notions and expectations of gender make them one of the central and most important themes throughout the novel.